The word miracle, as the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, is derived from the Latin word miraculum, itself from mirari, the verb to wonder. Throughout the gospels, many of the miracles performed by Jesus are recorded as doing just this — arousing wonder. But there is one miracle that is the most wonderful of all that He did and that is His resurrection from the dead.
In his book, The Resurrection of God Incarnate, Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne helps us to appreciate the revelatory significance of this miracle in a new light.
Swinburne approaches the truth of the Incarnation and the resurrection from philosophy. He asks: What would our reason tell us to look for in an Incarnation? In other words, if God did become fully man, what characteristics would He exhibit? What would be the telltale signs? Of course, as Christians, all we have to do is take a gander through the gospels to find out but Swinburne wants to see what reason would tell us, before we cross the threshold of revelation.
Swinburne comes up with five criteria. If God became incarnate the God-man would have the following five marks:
1. He would lead a morally perfect life.
2. He would be a teacher of wisdom.
3. He would proclaim that He is God at some point in His public life.
4. His teaching would also include the claim that His life was meant to atone for the sins of mankind.
5. He would make arrangements to ensure that His teaching was passed down to future generations (see The Resurrection of God Incarnate, 55-59).
Many of these criteria become self-evident if one assumes certain things about God, such as His perfect goodness or His omniscience. And that’s exactly what Swinburne is doing. His aim is to not to ‘prove’ the existence of God or argue for a certain concept of God. (There’s simply no space to do all that in this book and he’s already done it in books like The Existence of God and The Coherence of Theism.)
So, for example, assuming a perfectly good God, it follows that He would also be a blameless man. Likewise, it is the nature of the good to be ‘self-communicating,’ as the Church Father known as Dionysius the Areopagite, among others, pointed out. So this perfectly pure upright God-man would teach others how to follow His example.
Of the five criteria, perhaps the only one that isn’t clearly derivable from the concept of a God who is all-powerful and all good is the idea of atonement. That requires a concept of human nature as fallen. Revelation tells us how it happened but the failings of human nature are certainly quite evident.
So, with these five criteria in hand, Swinburne asks if we can find any religious figure in the history of the world who meets all five. (Remember, we are trying to figure out what we can learn through reason.) Swinburne answers that there is just one: Jesus Christ.
But assume for a moment that there was someone else who also met the five criteria (or ‘prior requirements,’ as Swinburne calls them. How could we tell which one was the true God Incarnate? (Why there could only be one true incarnation is whole separate discussion.) As Swinburne puts it,
But even if the prior requirements were known without any possible doubt to have been satisfied by some prophet, that perhaps would not be overwhelming evidence for his divinity. He could live a perfect life (unlikely though that is), teach great truths, perform works of healing, teach that his life was an atonement, and found a church (which taught his incarnation and atoning work) without being God. He could even, perhaps, make it evident that he believed himself to be God; this belief could be the result of a misunderstanding of his inner experience which was not his fault (The Resurrection of God Incarnate, 61-62).
Swinburne’s solution is what he calls the ‘posterior requirement’ for an Incarnation: an unmistakable divine ‘signature’ ‘authenticating’ that life. He calls this exemplary sign a ‘super miracle’ — a wondrous act or event that could only be produced by God, not by the ordinary processes of nature. In surveying world religions, Swinburne finds just one that has such a super miracle — Christianity. And that super miracle is the resurrection of Jesus Christ (see the discussion in The Resurrection of God Incarnate, 62).
The resurrection is the ultimate confirmation that Jesus was (and is) who He said He was. To paraphrase the words of one pastor I once heard, the resurrection is God’s exclamation point on the Incarnation.
Beyond validating Jesus’ life as a true Incarnation, His resurrection does something else also. Not only does it confirm that here is where God truly and fully entered the human story, but it serves as a sort of beacon to seekers of the truth who are not yet Christian and may not yet have a concept of an incarnation or a sense that they should be looking for such a thing.
But there is something most people who seek the truth about God know to look for in religious faith: the element of the supernatural, an authentic in-breaking of the divine into the human realm, something that is above and beyond the capability of man. And one sign of that is a miracle.
Now many religions claim to have miracles. For example here and here are lists of some commonly claimed miracles for Islam and Hinduism. As amazing as some of these events might be, something is missing in both lists: a super miracle of the stature of a resurrection.
One way to distinguish the truth from the shadows of the truth would be to see which faith has the greatest of miracles. Only Christianity, with its super-miracle of the resurrection, can lay claim to this title. Just as the Star of Bethlehem outshone all the other lights in the sky so also the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a wonder without peer.